They proved they belonged on the same ice surface as the No. 1 seed in the USHL’s Eastern Conference despite a rocky start to their best-of-5 semifinal series.
But the Dubuque Fighting Saints fell just a goal short of forcing a deciding fifth game.
Muskegon advanced to the final four with a 2-1 victory Wednesday night at Mystique Community Ice Center. The Lumberjacks will face Chicago, which defeated Cedar Rapids in four games, in the conference finals beginning this weekend at Muskegon.
“These last two nights just shows that we have a lot of unbelievable guys here and none of us wanted to go home early,” said Matias Maccelli, who scored the lone goal for the Saints. “This time, Muskegon was just a little bit better than we were.
“Every single guy gave everything he had tonight. That’s all you can ask.”
Muskegon, which earned a first-round bye by finishing first in the conference, effectively won the series with two convincing wins on home ice on Saturday and Sunday. The Lumberjacks won, 4-0 and 5-1, and hoped to close out the series Tuesday before the Saints responded with a 5-1 win.
Wednesday’s game could have gone either way.
“Give Muskegon a lot of credit,” Saints coach Oliver David said. “They earned that bye with all the work they did during the regular season, and they were the fresher team this weekend in Muskegon.
“But our four games with them during the regular season were all really close games that could have gone either way. We wanted to prove to a lot of people that we were a much better hockey team than we showed this weekend in Muskegon and that we were as close to them as we were during the regular-season series. Who knows what might have happened if we would have played this series on full rest.”
Dubuque and Muskegon split their four regular-season games. Both teams won once at home and on the road.
In a mostly defensive first period, both teams created Grade A scoring chances in the opening 10 minutes.
Muskegon’s Bobby Lynch took advantage of a Dubuque turnover for an all-alone shorthanded chance at the 6:10 mark. But Saints goaltender Matthew Thiessen calmly steered Lynch’s shot into the corner.
Just three minutes later, Maccelli enjoyed the Saints’ first quality scoring chance. He took advantage of a defenseman losing his footing to create a breakaway, but goalie Brandon Bussi made a stick save to keep it scoreless.
Muskegon finally opened the scoring with a goal on its first power play of the night. Jagger Joshua, one of the antagonists for the Lumberjacks in Tuesday’s 5-1 loss, deflected a shot from the point for a 1-0 advantage. Alex Yakovenko and Egor Afanasyev assisted on the goal at the 10:09 mark of the first period. The goal came just four seconds into the man advantage.
Muskegon scored the first goal for the seventh time in eight meetings with the Saints this season. The only exception came Tuesday night, when Dubuque scored the first four goals.
Muskegon finished with just an 8-6 advantage in shots on goal in the period.
The Lumberjacks tallied the all-important second goal 6:16 into the middle period. Thiessen made a blocker save on a tricky backhander, but a hard-charging Ryan Savage jumped on the rebound and snuck it past the goaltender. Nolan Sullivan and Yakovenko picked up assists.
Dubuque responded 2:30 later on Maccelli’s first goal of the postseason. Maccelli took a Bram Scheerer pass and carried through the attacking zone. At the left faceoff circle, he outwaited Bussi before sniping a shot under the crossbar that popped the water bottle off the net.
“I was just trying to do anything I could to help my team win,” Maccelli said. “Fortunately, that one went in. Everyone was really excited to go out and get the next one, but we just couldn’t get another one. But we gave it everything we had to try to get it.”
Muskegon had a pair of golden scoring chances later in the period but did not regain the two-goal cushion.
Dubuque defenseman Jacob Semik swept a loose puck in the crease to safety before the Lumberjacks could poke it into an open net. Then, Thiessen made a sprawling stick save on Oliver MacDonald, who had an open net for a target.
Dubuque played without star defenseman J. D. Greenway, who received a one-game suspension for being handed a pair of 10-minute misconducts on Tuesday night. He scored two goals and assisted on two others in the 5-1 win.
Muskegon outshot Dubuque, 27-21, and went 1-for-1 on the power play while the Saints finished 0-for-1.
Thiessen almost single-handedly kept Dubuque in the series. He made 140 saves in the four games.
The Saints finished 28-26-4-4 in the regular season and 3-3 in the playoffs.